Minding your Manners - The Unspoken Port ...

Minding your Manners - The Unspoken Portuguese rules of etiquette

Apr 05, 2024

Do you often wonder if you’re using the correct word or phrase when speaking to a Portuguese person? Are you hoping that you don’t make an embarrassing faux pas by misusing a specific form of address or gesture to someone, especially in a professional setting?

When you’re just learning the lingo and adjusting to a new culture, you may be making unintentional errors. I know I have. Portugal still practices a good deal of formality in both professional and daily living. And while most Portuguese are friendly, there’s still a conservative, unspoken protocol on the proper way to address someone.

So, I decided to delve into some of the more common unspoken Portuguese rules of etiquette. Use this information as a guideline only. It’s important to understand that these are unspoken rules and as such, your experiences may vary depending on the situation you find yourself in.

Saying ‘hello.’

I have been listening (really paying attention) to how people greet me in Portuguese. From the grocery delivery person, the letter carrier, the laundry service person, the cashier at the Mercado, the Uber driver, the receptionist at the doctor’s office, to the person getting off the elevator I’m patiently waiting for, are all polite, reservedly friendly, and generally say the following to me:

Hello, good morning = Olá, bom dia.

Hello, good afternoon = Olá, boa tarde.

Hello, good evening = Olá, boa noite.

Some abbreviate the greeting by eliminating the Olá, but most I have noticed use the whole phrase. So that’s what I try to use (I think it’s safe to do this, plus it does sound nice as it rolls off my tongue).

When you meet and greet.

When you meet a Portuguese person for the first time and especially in a business setting, your greeting should be polite and sincere. It is customary to use direct eye contact and shake hands (or now in Covid/post-Covid times, a fist bump might be preferable), using the ‘hello’ greeting appropriate for the time of day. At the end of your meeting or as you are leaving, you should shake hands again. This applies to both men and women.

For people you know such as friends or acquaintances, it is common for men to shake hands and give one another a pat on the back. Women may be greeted with a light kiss (or ‘air kiss’) on each cheek, starting with the right cheek. I have personally been greeted by both Portuguese men and women friends/acquaintances this way (although I’m still getting used to which cheek goes first).

Social settings.

If you’re invited to a party or perhaps dinner with a group of people, it is customary to greet each person who arrived before you. When leaving, it is customary to say goodbye to each person before you head out.

On being friendly to strangers.

In Arizona, people in our community – even strangers - were friendly. If we were walking along the many scenic walkways, people passing by in cars would wave, and people walking or running by would say hello. It’s different here. If we’re walking along a neighborhood sidewalk in Portugal, most people will walk right past us without so much as a nod. I don’t think it’s rudeness – but I do think it’s the custom from my personal experience and as I discovered while researching this topic. Greeting strangers you pass in a small village setting is appropriate. Greeting strangers as you walk in a larger town or city is not.

Sometimes, however, a person will surprise us with a smile or nod or even an Olá. So, many of these nuances I’m describing in this post are not necessarily carved in stone.

Senhor, senhora or something else?

Portugal has a long-standing culture of hierarchy which means that position, age, and authority are respected. People in senior positions should always be addressed formally both in oral and written communication.

The use of senhor (‘the gentleman’) and senhora or dona (‘the lady’) are titles of honor and can be used in formal situations, or to respectfully address older Portuguese folks. It can also be used to emphasize respect such as when addressing someone in law enforcement, academia, or government. Senhor/senhora can also mean sir/madam or Mr./Mrs.

I can only recall being called senhora once (so far). It was the time I was looking for something in the mini-Mercado and didn’t realize the lady behind the counter was speaking to me as she had found what I was in search of (it was peppercorns). In a loudish voice she said, “Senhora!” That got my attention.

Portuguese people will use first names as a form of address to friends, children, and teenagers. In other situations, it is customary to address adults by their title and surname. You should not assume a first name only basis until you are invited to do so (especially in a formal or business setting).

Doutor or doutora – who and why?

There seems to be some confusion regarding the proper way to address someone with a university degree – be it medical or educational. I found this resource that breaks it down somewhat clearly:

  • Doutor is the masculine word in Portuguese for doctor. The abbreviation is Dr.

  • Doutora is the feminine word in Portuguese for doctor. The abbreviation is Dra.

  • In academia, doutor/doutora is used for people who have completed a university doctorate.

  • In medicine, doutor/doutora is used for people who have graduated from a university of medicine.

  • Doutor/doutora can also refer to someone who is knowledgeable and cultured. The term can also indicate a title of someone with authority in the judiciary system as well as or one who is deserving of respectful treatment.

Individuals with a university degree can be addressed using the title of honor (senhor/senhora) plus doutor/doutora with or without their surname or first name.

The abbreviation PhD is not used to indicate the degree of doctor or doctorate in Portugal.


Portugal like other Latin countries is more relaxed about time. If you’re from somewhere else such as the U.S., you may find this to be a difficult adjustment (but adjusting will probably better overall for your health). In Portugal, it is acceptable to be a few minutes late for an appointment or meeting (maybe 5-10 minutes at the most). Deadlines are not as critical as with other cultures. Follow-through may not be at the speed you’re accustomed to.

It's also good to understand that if you’re planning to make appointments or schedule a business meeting in Portugal, the month of August and the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year, are considered holiday periods so you most likely won’t get too much response.

Go with the flow and plan accordingly.

The one phrase to learn and remember.

Most people in Portugal I have encountered are very tolerant and forgiving, especially if you make an unspoken etiquette mistake. Practice saying the phrase, ‘desculpe-me’ which means, ‘I’m sorry’ in Portuguese. Acknowledging a faux pas and apologizing for it can go a long way.

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